This past week, a quote by Sylvia Plath from her work The Bell Jar has been on my mind.
The passage, which you’ve likely come across at one point or another, is about sitting at the peak of your life, and trying to decide who you want to be and what you want to do in a world of possibility. Plath describes the end of each branch of a tree bearing a ripe and purple fig, each one representing an alternate future and possibility- “One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor…”– and trying to decide which one to pick.
In the end, Plath cannot decide which one to pick, because she wants all of them. And, inevitably, the fruits ripen, fall to the earth, and rot where they lay.
The experience of reading this quote was one of instant connection for me, but not one that inspired me immediately.
In fact, reading this quote made me cry. It not only made me cry, but it made me cry in public, behind someone else’s computer, in a room full of people, because they insisted that I needed to read this. And these were not happy or revelatory tears- they were angry, hurt, sorrowful tears. The kind of tears that make you bury your face in your hands and hide that kind-of-ugly face you’re making while you scramble your way out of sight.
Reading about the fig tree gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach, the kind of feeling you get when you’re realizing that the thing you’ve been avoiding, the thing you’ve been convincing yourself you were wrong about, is actually very real and very true. Everything I’ve been shoving to the back of my mind “for later” came bubbling to the surface the deeper I got into the passage, every worry about school and my career and my life hit me like a tidal wave and knocked the air out of me.
Because here, put into words more eloquent than I could ever write, was my reality.
See, the dilemma that is outlined in the story of the fig tree isn’t one that seems outwardly difficult. It’s a bounty of opportunity, waiting to be harvested and feasted upon. It’s a land of possibility, waiting to be sowed. It’s an absolute cornucopia of worldly experiences just waiting to be plucked. But there’s an underlying cruelty to that fig tree- you can’t have them all. You have to pick one, and hope that it’s as sweet on the inside as it appears to be from the outside. And what if some figs taste different than others? And how will I know which ones appeal to my tastes? And what if I end up not liking one, but never finding the one that I really would like?
I’m at a point in my life where I’m sitting in the branches of the fig tree. Everywhere I turn, opportunity is awaiting me. These past few years have felt absolutely laden in golden possibility, and I’ve been in constant awe of the experiences and gifts that have come into my life seemingly all at once and out of the blue. First it was teacher training, then it was the CNN article, then it was the Women’s Strength Summit, and million things in between. My tree that had once seemed so fruitless was now heavy with purple, heavy figs. And then there were the figs that were still green, but ripening before my eyes with a startling speed-college acceptance letters started trickling in, one by one, each one bearing a new possibility, a new future entirely.
I have an endless amount of possible answers to the growing number of questions in my life right now. I can go nearly anywhere in the world, learn nearly anything I want to learn, be with nearly anyone I want to be with, do nearly anything I want to do. But instead of feeling the comfort that I thought would come with this number of options, I feel absolutely overwhelmed.
As I read the last lines in the fig tree story, I was hit by that tidal wave of realization.
“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
I have so many figs, but I can’t pick the ones I want to nourish me. I know each one offers its own form of substance, its own form of vitality, but for the life of me I cannot pluck one from its branch and put it in my mouth. I’m starving, not for lack of possession, but for lack of decision. The longer I wait, the more figs will fall to the earth, and the less resources I will have to draw upon.
And there are already some figs littered on my earth, ones that I’ve allowed to slip out of my realm of possibility. There’s Maris the Swimmer, Maris the Astronaut, Maris the Doctor….things that were childhood dreams but never stuck. I feel at peace with these juvenile losses, but the figs that now adorn my tree are much more rooted in reality. They’re colleges and majors and locations, not “someday what-ifs”. They’re decisions I’ll make by May 1st. They have expiration dates. They’re fleeting.
I sat in a hallway at school after reading the passage, swimming in emotion. For one, it was difficult to swallow the fact that my worst fears are a recognized phenomenon- they will, eventually, fall and rot away. I do have a deadline fast approaching. For another, it was hard to know that these words, however poetic they may be, reminded someone of who I am; surrounded by possibility and abundance, struggling to grab hold of any of it. And perhaps the biggest weight on my shoulders was that the passage didn’t give me an answer, and, in fact, no one can.
A friend found me sitting up against a wall, watching the clouds slowly breeze over the sun, opening up the heavens again and again, casting the world in a periodically warm glow and silvery shadow. I was thinking about everything. I was thinking about nothing. Mostly, I was thinking about how unfair everything felt. I was dipping my toes in worlds that felt so remarkably right- teaching, writing, connecting. Workshops and seminars and sacred circles. And yet, I was rooted back into the reality of this time: school and college and traditional careers.
“I just don’t know what I want.” I poured into the friend, “I know there are things I have to do, but they don’t excite me. And I feel so happy doing the things I’m doing now, but I know they can’t last, at least not while I have to focus on the things I have to do.”
I swallowed hard. My mouth felt empty.
“I just don’t even know where I’m going to be next year.”
That’s the worst part- not knowing.
The friend shifted a bit, like she was trying to get my ocean of feeling to settle inside of her. When she spoke, it almost sounded incredulous.
“Well, you don’t have to know.”
I wanted to laugh in her face. That was an answer I had been accepting, wrapped in naivety and procrastination, for the past few years, but one that didn’t hold against the ticking clock in front of me. I wanted to tell her that yes, I need to know, in fact, very soon. I wanted to tell her that it’s easy to say those words to other people, when it’s just a vague future and a vague setting and a vague outcome. I wanted to tell her that my figs are all about to rot and then I’ll be left with nothing but the bark on my tree.
But she continued.
“Next year is going to come, and you’ll find out then. But Maris, wherever you go, you’ll find a way to do the things that are important to you. The writing, the teaching, you’ll find a way to do it. It might look different, but it’ll be there.”
And I realized that I’d been in this tree for much longer than I thought.
When I was sitting in the hospital, wondering if I’d ever get better, I was starving, too. I wasn’t picking any figs, because I didn’t think I deserved them. And as I started to heal, I started plucking the lowest hanging fruits, the most basic futures, because they were a world better than the brink of nothingness I had been sitting on. I plucked the ones that had Maris Who Can Eat Breakfast and Maris Who Can Sleep at Night in their flesh.
And with those inside of me, I started swinging to the higher branches, plucking Maris the Yogi and Maris Who Smiles down and eating them a bit faster now, absorbing them a bit easier now. And then I was higher up in the tree, pulling down Maris the Teacher and Maris the Writer and Maris the Healing down and eating them not with reluctance of decision, but with hunger for their taste, whatever it may be. And in my pockets I stuffed Maris the High School Student and Maris the Responsible Decision Maker, because those were still there, too. But now they were dinner, the things I had to eat, and the others I were collecting were the dessert- the appealing treats that not only sustained me, but made me happy as well.
But now I’m reaching the highest branches, the ones that hold the heavier fruit. They holder bigger implications within them, but they are still just fruit.
Whichever ones I pick, they don’t change the figs that I’ve already consumed. Those fruits have already become a part of me, become the cells that create my flesh and form my being. I may only be able to collect one or two fruits at a time, but that doesn’t mean I can never hold more again. It only means I have to wait for some to digest, some to settle within me first. It only means I have to be mindful of what I can hold at a time, not bite off more than I can chew.
Some figs will fall, some figs will rot. But a tree does not fruit only once in a lifetime.
Spring will come again, and new fruits will blossom. They may not be the same fruits, but they’ll be of the same essence.
And the ones that rot, the ones that assimilate back into the earth, don’t merely disappear. The roots of the tree carry them back up, use them, too. One way or another, the fruits find their way into the Universe. Maybe their gift, their return, their lesson, is found in their fall. Maybe there are some I don’t need to taste to understand their truth. Maybe there are some I can learn more from without plucking them down myself.
This season is beginning to come to an end, and it’s true that I’ll need to pick my harvest for the season soon. But it is not the only opportunity I’ll have to feed from the tree. Picking what I can does not mean that those that rot will be forever gone, nor that those that are plucked are all I will ever taste.
The only mistake I can make is not picking any at all.